Gaddafi’s passing brings with it a welter of thoughts and observations. The world of 1969, when he first came to power, was very different from the world in which he died. It was a far simpler world, in which it was still possible for a handful of officers, led by one Captain Gaddafi, embedded in a puny, 6,000-man army, to overthrow a supposedly entrenched regime in a matter of two hours. The regime of King Idris was swept aside in part due to its irrelevance in an age of Pan-Arab nationalist revolution. Now, in our own time, the death of Gaddafi provides an exclamation point to the end of the succeeding era of supposed revolutionary renewal, the last vestiges of which are succumbing to the rising floodwaters of the Arab Spring.
In the valley of the blind, it is said, the one-eyed man is king. Gaddafi may have had an imperfect grasp, at best, of the revolutionary doctrines he espoused, but he reflected for a small, impoverished and isolated people the zeitgeist of 1960s and ‘70s leftist revolution and romantic pan-Arab socialism of his time. Like all such “revolutionaries”, Gaddafi’s avowed populism and devotion to equality were a sham. Instead, he and his Revolutionary Command Council would act as the “vehicle of national expression”, in order to “raise the political consciousness of Libyans”. He would embody the will of the Libyan people only after their will had been sufficiently instructed by their “Brother Leader”.
One might have said of Gaddafi, in paraphrase, what Henry Kissinger once said of Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus: He was too great a man for such a small nation. Apparently much of the same opionion, Gaddafi quickly set about using Libya as a secure and easily-dominated platform from which to pursue far greater ambitions abroad. He shortly began to bestow the benefit of his world revolutionary leadership – and, more pointedly, his considerable petrodollar income – upon a smorgasbord of radical leftist, terrorist and separatist groups around the globe: From the IRA in Ireland, to the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, to the FARC in Colombia, to the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines.
Curiously for one so rhetorically devoted to the cause of Palestinians, Gaddafi’s relations with Palestinians themselves were generally wary and marginal. It cannot have been an accident that his most sustained relationship with a Palestinian group was with one almost unimaginably dysfunctional, internally murderous and sociopathic: The Abu Nidal Group.
Finding his brilliance sadly underappreciated among his fellow Arab leaders, despite his endless political manoeuvering, Gaddafi soon devoted the majority of his considerable energies upon the black African countries to his south, where poverty, political weakness and endemic religio-ethnic conflict provided a much more attractive forum for the Libyan Colonel’s idiosyncratic combination of whimsical ideological fads, cynically selective philanthropy and Lilliputian military adventurism.
Gaddafi’s scars on Libya
But nowhere were the consequences of Gaddafi’s unique combination of pathologies more disastrously in evidence than in Libya itself. A little knowledge, they say, is a dangerous thing. To the longstanding cost of the Libyan people, Gaddafi managed to cobble together a collection of bits and pieces from his sophomoric understanding of the great ideologies and philosophical traditions of the modern era, sufficient to create his own crack-brained “Third International Theory”, which found its practical expression in the Great Socialist Popular Libyan Arab Jamahiriyah. The administrative chaos and social atomisation created by some 2,000 overlapping “people’s committees” created an environment perhaps uniquely susceptible to domination by the Brother Leader’s signature combination of political manipulation and brutal intimidation.
Despite his professed lifelong aversion to Communism, the wily and ambitious colonel from Sirte was able to consistently manipulate cold-war and great-power rivalries to his benefit. He was thus able to acquire huge stocks of weapons from his Soviet and East-Bloc friends without ever subordinating himself to their ambitions, but most importantly, he was able to harness the expertise of the East Germans in one skill area critical to his long-term survival: social repression. This writer had a great deal of contact with people from many Arab countries during the 1980s and 1990s, but nowhere did he encounter a people so thoroughly cowed and intimidated in those years as the Libyans. The life of a Libyan official or anyone in a position to harm the interests of the regime was life in a snake-pit. Brother could not trust brother. In any group of three, at least one would have to be assumed by the others to be a regime informant.
In retrospect, it seems that Gaddafi’s great turn to the West in 2003, when he accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, divulged so-called WMD programmes, and began to cooperate on counter-terrorism, was a sign that the end was nigh. Tired now, and focused on transferring power to his sons, Gaddafi could no longer claim to be in the ideological vanguard of the region, let alone the world. Nasserist Arab nationalism had run its course, and had long since been replaced by Islamism as the leading political current in the region, posing a direct threat to him and his intolerantly secular regime. A manipulator to the last, Gaddafi was willing to deal with his long-time enemies in the West in order to better preserve his power at home.
This marriage of convenience was never a comfortable one, based as it was on a very limited and highly tactical convergence of interests. Such cooperation might have been justifiable under the circumstances, and indeed was supported by this writer, but must also be acknowledged for what it was: An accommodation to an unfortunate reality in a highly imperfect world. Some might have thought that the opening between Libya and the West was a potential means of eventual reform, that the transition to the younger elements of the Gaddafi clan might carry with it the possibility of an evolving accommodation to the people’s legitimate rights and wishes. What it signalled instead was a turn to the defensive, as a hideously outmoded and incorrigible regime found itself swimming against multiple tides of history.
A regime such as Gaddafi’s is almost unimaginable now in all but the most regressive portions of the globe. A world in which street-sweepers have cell phones, where even the most humble citizens are intimately connected to a wider world, is one in which a bizarre historical artefact like the Gaddafi regime could never survive. The fact that he is finally gone will not by itself enable Libyans to realise their most ambitious and noble aspirations, but it must be seen for what it is: A necessary, if insufficient, start.
Robert Grenier was the CIA’s chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. From October 2002 until December 2004, he was the CIA Iraq Mission Manager. He was also the director of the CIA’s counterterrorism centre.